Mr Marsh, your new country needs you

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The Independent Online

Captaincy can never have been such a problem in England since Bligh was given his marching orders from the Bounty. As if the Test team did not have enough hurdles to surmount in acquiring a replacement for the oft-injured Nasser Hussain, the Under-19 side are similarly hard-pushed.

Although the team begin their junior Test series against West Indies tomorrow they still do not know who will lead them. Ian Bell, the most recent incumbent, has been returned to Warwickshire where, it is hoped, he will gain greater experience.

England will miss their best batsman and his absence leaves them temporarily leaderless. The coach, Tim Boon, was still agonising yesterday over whom to promote. The choice is likely to come down to the wicketkeeper, Matthew Prior, of Sussex, or the new leading batsman, Nicky Peng. It will not be easily resolved: it is important not to deflect Prior from his keeping tasks and although Peng is some batsman he may not yet possess the maturity preferable in leading 10 other teenagers.

"They are perhaps two of the candidates," said Boon in a manner which suggested that candidates are not exactly leaping off the page. "They have both had experience with their counties and Peng is a player of wonderful promise."

It is customary in looking at each summer's Under-19 intake to imagine the future senior team. That is now accompanied by trying to assess who will qualify for the tutelage of Rodney Marsh at the new National Academy. Not all the present bunch, from their performances in the one-day series last week, inspire abundant hope and expectation. They did themselves full justice neither when batting nor bowling and lost the series 2-1.

Two totals of 142 for 9 and 182 tell their own story and their 241 in the game they won was probably 30 runs short of what they should have made. The new-ball bowlers struggled to contain the effervescent West Indies opener, Devon Smith, although he offered plenty of evidence that he might be a special talent. Smith made scores of 75, 66 and 102 not out and it was no surprise to hear Boon suggest that he was the sole difference between the sides. The trouble with that argument is that he may also be so in the Test series.

The interminable dispute between whether it is better for a player to be playing for his county first eleven or his country's Under-19 team has still not been fully resolved. There are at least two individual examples from the present squad. Bell has struggled to make the Warwickshire first team this season, a reluctance which was put into perspective on his return by his maiden Championship hundred.

Bob Woolmer, the county's coach, whose name is associated with forward-thinking, has been roundly disparaged for refusing to give him a run this season although Bell was on an England A tour last winter. That madness is surely now at an end, though England had no power to intervene.

Chris Tremlett, the tall seam bowler, has been a key part of Hampshire's seam attack for much of this season and missed the county's match (and famous win) against the Australians because he was with the Under-19 one-day squad. Shane Warne, for one, was alarmed, expressing the understandable view that Tremlett may have stood to learn more from the best side in the world than a West Indies junior side.

"We are aware of the counties' needs and there is communication between us and them," said Boon. "I should say that the lads still very much look forward to playing for England. They have pride in playing for their country. But many of this team already have experience of county cricket. We know we have to liaise."

Given that, it is a surprise to see Peng and Prior in the squad. They are both established members of their respective county teams this season. The others who have already played, confirming that the game appears at last to be grasping the need to blood tyros at the expense of beneficiaries, include Andrew McGarry of Essex, Kadeer Ali of Worcestershire and Gary Pratt of Durham. It was Pratt who made a hundred in England's one-day win last week.

"We can win the Test series," said Boon. "There is enough talent to do that and, of course, we'll be trying to win every game. But that isn't all that Under-19 cricket is about. We want to help them as individuals, to help their belief and confidence."

But the serious business of Under-19 cricket is also the fun – identifying both the academy members and the players who will one day have an England career. First, the academy. Bell, Peng and Tremlett are surely all shoo-ins, while Pratt and Ali will gain a mention in despatches. As for England, Bell has a chance and Tremlett, Peng and Bilal Shafayat, the 17-year-old from Nottinghamshire who is part of the welcome tide of Asians coming into the game, can all be pencilled in at this extremely early stage.

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